I’ve been off the baseball card game for a while. Not that it’s a huge change; the days of buying complete sets and boxes are about 20 years past, and the deteriorating quality of Topps (and the fact that Topps is the only company in the game now) have left the urge to buy lots of packs or splurge cards minimal. There’s always nostalgia, but that only goes so far.
But I still have my Red Sox binder, and the urge to keep accumulating players as they pass through Boston is still strong. It’s more of a scrapbook than the investment portfolio I thought I was assembling when I was 10. Alas.
So in the throes of winter and this typically weird New England cycle of mild, sunny days in the 30s and near-blizzards with highs of 4 degrees, I’ve renewed myself a bit to picking up some of the Red Sox cards from the past season. It was a memorable one, of course, and having certain guys in the binder became important. So joining the stalwarts David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez and Jason Varitek and curiosities like Darren Bragg, Corey Bailey and Darryl Irvine are Ryan Dempster, Shane Victorino and even Joel Hanrahan. And of course, Koji Uehara.
Beyond the adequately photoshopped jersey on the front of the card and the sideburns that were absent all year, the 2013 season belonged to Uehara as much as anyone not named “Ortiz.” And though the Topps folks couldn’t have known quite the role he’d play, the blurb on the back of his card is impressive enough in its foresight:
“In what could turn out to be a highly underrated signing, the Red Sox added Koji in December. … His SO/BB ratio of 7.70 is an all-time record (by almost 2.0) for a pitcher with at least 200 innings.”
Underrated indeed. While he was fourth on the closer carousel behind Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey and Andrew Miller, Uehara of course did stabilize the ninth inning for Boston, and he did it by throwing strikes with more precision than a pitching machine. One of the more memorable recurring images of the season was that of Uehara sprinting out of the bullpen, and then sometimes as few as three pitches later, high-fiving Jarrod Saltalamacchia and the rest of the team as they filed back down the baseline and into the dugout.
I wrote a column last year on Uehara, and even though I knew the story was that he practically never walked anyone and only threw strikes, I was still shocked at what I found in digging through numbers. For the season, he struck out 101 batters and walked only nine. That works out to a 11.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio, about 3.5 better than his already historic career. The 74.1 innings he pitched in 2013 raises his career ratio to 8.74, for the record.
It’s all mathematical affirmation of what our eyes told us during the season; that this was a pitcher having an incredible season that we hadn’t seen in some time. The numbers reinforce what was already known, and then some. And it gives the baseball card writers plenty of material for the 2014 set.